When it comes to strong gaming IPs, there’s a tendency to focus on pop culture touchstones like Marvel and Star Wars, while franchises with long histories like Warhammer often get overlooked.
So let’s dive into the history of Warhammer in gaming, how Games Workshop is pushing the IP forward, and the opportunity ahead in mobile gaming.
The Warhammer Setting
The franchise originated in 1983 with the arrival of UK company Games Workshop's Warhammer Fantasy tabletop game. Following the success of its Space Marine wargame in 1986, the IP expanded further into the sci-fi realm with Warhammer 40,000 in 1987, now its most popular setting.
Warhammer stands apart from other fantasy and sci-fi IPs with its darker tone and focus on an eternally war-torn universe. The IP has also become synonymous with its costly miniature figures, with the culture around collecting and painting them often overshadowing the wargame itself. However, this deep engagement has cultivated a multi-generational fanbase, enriched by extensive lore in games, novels, and more.
Warhammer Video Games
Since 1991, the Warhammer IP has been licensed out to 104 video games in total. In 2015, Games Workshop's licensing strategy shifted from exclusive partnerships to a more flexible, game-by-game approach. This change, which welcomed smaller developers, has increased the number of game releases but has also led to a wider quality range. While the PC/console games have mostly received positive reviews, many mobile games have struggled.
Before we explore what the future may have in store for Warhammer, let’s take a quick look at some historic data for its PC and mobile releases. This data excludes console and starts in 2008; Steam data is gathered from Steam Charts, SteamDB, and Gamalytic, and mobile data is from data.ai.
These charts group game series together and combine all those under $1M in the Other grouping, and uses abbreviations like 40K for Warhammer 40,000, WH for Warhammer, and AoS for Age of Sigmar.
Clearly there’s a power law at play in terms of which games succeed, but the chart also reveals that the most successful games typically extend to a three-game series, Darktide being the latest. DLC has significantly boosted revenue for Warhammer’s top games, with the total cost of all DLC for Total War: Warhammer 1-3, Warhammer: Vermintide 1-3, and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War adding up to $268, $158, and $108 respectively. Despite Warhammer 40,000's popularity, the Total War: Warhammer trilogy and the first two Vermintide games are set in the original fantasy universe.
If we break out the portfolio by genre, we see that strategy games are a natural fit, comprising 21 of the 36 titles. First and third-person shooters demonstrate player interest in immersive Warhammer experiences, including more niche spin offs like Space Hulk and Necromunda. Action RPGs have also fared well, but turn-based RPGs, especially those designed as free-to-play cross-platform games, have been less popular.
While strategy remains central, there's also demand for action-oriented shooters and RPGs in the Warhammer world – this opens up possibilities for FPS/RPG hybrids akin to Fallout or Cyberpunk.
How does the IP shake out on mobile? Let’s see:
There are some standout winners and losers here, but overall Warhammer PC/console games have outperformed their mobile counterparts. The top three mobile games, all strategy-focused, include Tacticus (a turn-based game), plus 4X strategy games Lost Crusade and Chaos & Conquest. Tacticus is the only one still generating steady revenue.
The majority of these games are available on both Steam and mobile, so for the sake of comparison, here is the revenue distribution between the two:
In almost all cases, mobile earns the majority of revenue except for the two games better suited to PC play. It’s also no coincidence that the two best mobile performers, Lost Crusade and Tacticus, are mobile only.
When looking at how the different subgenres of Warhammer games perform on mobile, it’s also unsurprising to see 4X, turn-based strategy, and card games – those with less real-time gameplay – be more successful (which is the opposite on PC). This suits mobile users who often play in briefer sessions. Mobile turn-based strategy emphasizes short tactical battles, 4X involves resource management and timers, and trading card games, although more successful on mobile than PC, often face limited lifespans.
To better highlight the significant differences in design and monetization strategy between PC strategy games and mobile adaptations, it's worth quickly looking at the current top performer, Warhammer 40,000: Tacticus.
Unlike the PC and tabletop games that focus on generic army units and large-scale battles, Tacticus features specific characters and gacha-based acquisition. This approach aligns well with F2P monetization, character shard grinding, and collection mechanics. Gameplay is tailored to quick, turn-based tactical battles, similar to stages in mobile team-battle RPGs like Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes.
Tacticus adapts PC DLC strategies for content expansion into its gacha and level-based systems. Campaign levels, sold in faction-focused sets featuring three heroes, offer discounts for heroes already owned and accommodate free players' potential to grind for content.
The game monetizes through a premium currency, a battle pass, and numerous time-limited offers. Our estimates show that around 26% of total iOS downloads in the United States and UK convert to paying players, mainly through an attractive $5 beginner offer.
Warhammer's popularity as a hobby wargame surged during COVID and has since continued to grow, contrary to the trend of retraction seen in most games. According to Games Workshop's 2022-2023 financials from July, the company reported a 15.2% year-on-year revenue increase, largely due to growth in new players. This presents an opportunity to integrate new fans into the broader IP ecosystem and land more video game purchases. The audience size is huge; an estimated 2.4M English-speaking Warhammer 40,000 players with potentially 3.5-5M globally, based on a Goonhammer reader survey. With physical tabletop play and hobby painting typically limited to once a week, mobile games in particular have a substantial opportunity to engage players outside of that time.
Games Workshop has entered into negotiations with Amazon to produce a Warhammer 40,000 TV series, which is set to be produced by avid Warhammer fan and movie star Henry Cavill. This has the potential to significantly boost interest in the IP and convert viewers to players, especially mobile F2P games, given their instant accessibility compared to buying and painting an army of miniatures. Currently, most exposure to Warhammer occurs in local board game stores, which don't showcase the Warhammer fiction, one of its key strengths.
The upcoming year should be interesting for Warhammer video games. Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is correcting its initial launch issues and gaining popularity, partly due to its availability on Xbox Game Pass and favorable recent Steam reviews, moving up from 'Mixed' to 'Very Positive'. An estimated 16k copies were sold last week, likely boosted by deep Black Friday discounts across the Warhammer catalog. Additionally, on PC there’s new RTS Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin, released on November 17th.
Action RPG Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader is set for a December release, and could attract the approximately 600k owners of previous ARPG Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr. Finally, the eagerly-awaited sequel to the third-person shooter Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, which is on over 1M Steam wishlists, is slated for a mid-2024 release. These games span successful genres and cover both PC and console platforms well.
Mobile gaming remains a weak point for the IP, but it doesn’t have to. Given the substantial hobby spending in the tabletop and PC/console sectors around Warhammer, there's significant potential for profitable mobile games beyond Tacticus and Lost Crusade.
The strategy genre works well for this IP on mobile, and areas like action RPGs, third-person shooters, and possibly idle or tower defense games remain untapped. As the tabletop game attracts younger players, this could later broaden the fanbase’s taste in games, including acceptance of mobile gaming.
Games Workshop has experienced an impressive 3,000% increase in its stock price since 2008, from an initial $4.25 to $128.79 as of the time of writing – so clearly the licensing strategy has worked. Even today, earnings reports continue to highlight an eagerness to further license the IP to video games. However, while value has certainly accrued for shareholders, this broader licensing strategy has seen mixed results from a quality perspective.
It’s led to some of the biggest successes, such as the Total War and Vermintide series, but it’s also led to more failures. Some smaller developers have failed to meet expectations and even lost their licenses, as is the case with the Warhammer Quest RPGs, which are soon to be delisted. Furthermore, recent releases like Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin and Warhammer 40,000: Warpforge also show signs of potential failure. More broadly licensing has turned into a double-edged sword, with more failures, but higher overall growth.
Next, we may see this play out at a larger scale with mobile, which is still early in tapping into the Warhammer IP and much smaller than in PC/console. Hits like Tacticus demonstrate that replicating the tabletop experience isn't the sole path to mobile success, and paired with Games Workshop's flexible approach to licensing, we expect more diverse attempts to be made with mixed successes.
As many mobile studios struggle to cost-effectively acquire players at scale, prominent IPs can hold real advantages. So there’s a real opportunity in Warhammer for mobile developers who appreciate the IP and understand the desires of its fans to create something new and interesting.
As for Games Workshop, its approach is entirely different to major players like Supercell or those with mass market IPs like Marvel or Star Wars, but its model, which holds fascinating trade-offs, is certainly one to be further studied. Perhaps other IPs can learn from Games Workshop’s successes and lessons learned.
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